In recent posts, I have talked about the doctrine of Scripture and the Bible as a literary work. Knowing the nature of what Scripture is should guide us when we choose a Bible translation. The very first tool of sound Bible study is the translation itself, and we ought to choose a good one.
There is often a lot of controversy surrounding modern translations. There are individuals who believe that using anything but the King James Version is tantamount to heresy. On the other side of the question, there are those who think that the older versions are out of date and can be done away with. In their book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart come right out and say that they recommend a student use anything else but the King James Version or New King James Version. Leland Ryken in his book Choosing a Bible: Understanding Bible Translation Differences comes down very much against modern translations. On the flip side of that scholar's view, D.A. Carson's excellent commentary on John uses the New International Version, which Ryken would probably not recommend. So, how do we know what is best?
The Bible, obviously, was written in another language. I'm reading Les Misrables right now. A translator took the original copy of the book and translated it from French into English. When it comes to the Bible, there is no One Great Big Copy somewhere. In fact, there are no original manuscripts left. What we have, though, are myriads of copies of the original documents. The job of translators is to take those manuscripts, read them, look at how they are similar and different and then come up with a consensus of which must be true to the original. They do this by looking at grammar, word usage, syntax and other translation techniques. It is a complicated proces and there are many variables. It's actually quite a fascinating process if languages interest you. I know very little about it, but if you want to know more, read Fee and Stuart's book. They give an excellent summary of the issues that are involved in the translation process. I will briefly explain my understanding about translations and their differences.
In a perfect world, we would all read the original languages of the Bible, but we don't, so we rely on translations. There are two approaches to translation: formal equivalence, and functional, or dynamic, equivalence. A formal equivalence looks to translate in an essentially literal, word for word fashion. It seeks to preserve the same number of words and grammatical constructions as the orginal language. The New American Standard Bible is an example of this. Dynamic equivalence attempts to convey the same meaning as the original language, but is not so concerned with the same number of grammatical constructions; it is a "thought for thought" translation. The New Living Translation is a dynamic equivalence. Most versions fall somewhere in between the two approaches. To see a comparison chart of where the various translations fall, click here.
Advocates of the formal equivalence assert that in translating thought for thought instead of word for word, the translators are doing interpretive work that ought to be left to the reader. Those who are in favour of the thought for thought approach believe that getting rid of outdated language and stating idioms and expressions in a way we would in English is a good thing. I do have to admit that I think translation by its very nature can be interpretive even in a formal equivalence. The fact that the NASB and the NRSV (both literal translations) can differ means that translators don't always agree. This means that a choice is made by a translator or a committee. That choice can almost border on being interpretive. That being said, though, the goal of the formal equivalence is to be as close as possible to the original wording. With a more dynamic translation, the mandate of updating the language may involve a sacrifice in the faithfulness to the original. Personally, I want something as close to the original as possible.
The authors of How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth recommend using multiple versions, ensuring that at least one is a formal equivalence. They are very supportive of the TNIV, which I don't read, but I have looked at it online. I use as my main translation the English Standard Version, but when I prepare lessons, I also use the New American Standard and recently I acquired a New Revised Standard Version. I have a New International Version that is the 1984 version which I may look at occasionally. I don't mind a little hard work, and part of the study of God's word is digging deep and there are many tools to help us. My hesitancy about using a dynamic equivalence in isolation is that we are not forced to really think about things, and we may not pursue anything futher, thus missing out on some of the richness of the Bible. I can understand having a child use something easier, like the NIV, but to say that an average 17 year old without any learning disabilities cannot understand the New American Standard is pretty sad. I think a good commentary can be just as helpful, if not more helpful, than a version like the New Living Translation.
I want to say a word about paraphrases. They are not translations, but attempt to freely reword the Biblical text. They are most often done by an individual, whereas other versions are done by large committees of scholars. These are highly interpretive and come close to a commentary, but without the benefits of a commentary. The most popular one is The Message. I apologize in advance if I offend someone, but I have to say something about The Message. In all honesty, I cringe when I hear it read. If this version is supposed to help me understand the Bible more, it fails miserably. I find it awkward and gritty sounding. It reminds me of a 45 year old man who is trying to sound cool to his teenaged son. I'll give an example of the difference. This is I Samuel 17:44 in the English Standard Version:
The Phillistine said to David, "Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field."
Now, here it is in The Message:
"Come on," said the Phillistine, "I'll make road kill of you for the buzzards."
Road kill? Really? You're telling me that it is not clear what the ESV is saying? I didn't have any trouble with the ESV rendering, and I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Try giving The Message to someone whose first language isn't English (as spoken in North America, that is) and wants to read the Bible in English. He will struggle with The Message because it's full of jargon like "road kil" that will need to be explained to him. If you really must read something "easier" use the NIV.
Thus endeth my speech about The Message. A paraphrase can give us a big picture, but ultimately to really study the Bible, we must have a translation that tries to remain as faithful to the original as possible because it concentrates on the words, and it is the words put together in verbal units that build meaning.
Another approach to reading difficulties is to avail ourselves of study bibles, which will often contain very helpful study notes. I have the ESV Study Bible and I use it daily. The MacArthur Study Bible comes in three different versions, the NKJV, the NASB, and the ESV. It is also being released in the NIV (and there's a whole pile of controversy over that if you're into that kind of thing). The Reformation Study Bible also contains notes, but my favourite is the ESV Study Bible. I have never used the NIV much, so if there is a good study bible out there, perhaps someone can recommend it. The point is, our goal is to to discover what the orginal author of Scripture intended. Our tools need to help us with that, not hinder us.